The 2023 budget could make Halifax better forever | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
This year's HRM budget is shaping up to be one of those pivotal moments in Halifax's history—in 20 years, Halifax could be unrecognizable, in the best possible way.
This year's HRM budget is shaping up to be one of those pivotal moments in Halifax's history—in 20 years, Halifax could be unrecognizable, in the best possible way.

The 2023 budget could make Halifax better forever

Or, we could have a slightly lower tax increase.

HRM’s budget debates rolled on this week. At Wednesday’s meeting, after some mild scrutiny, the budget committee passed the city IT department's $32-million budget. It also passed the Property, Fleet & Environment budget valued at $48 million.

Friday morning, the committee also passed the$12.9 million human resources and corporate communications budget. For this budget, council chose to save $700,000 by winding down an internship program. The program was to help recent post-secondary graduates get experience at a time when a lot of employers wanted 3-5 years of experience for entry-level jobs. With no clear way to get that experience, the city created this program. The program will phase out one of the two cohorts over the next two years.

As a reminder, the budget committee is made up of the same people as council, but the mayor and councillor Paul Russell change seats.

One of the two major debates to come out of this week’s meeting happened about the library’s $23-million slice of the city’s budget. The library faces the same issues the police do—that is to say, since no level of government adequately invests in public safety, the library and police have both expanded into that space. The police fill in on the punitive side, and the library fills in on the helpful, preventative side. While the library and police both have to justify core components of their budgets this year, in previous years this burden was only placed on the library.

Councillor Tony Mancini thought it was weird that the library has to come to the budget committee every year to beg for more money for books. So, he asked city staff for a briefing note on how to make having enough books—a noted reason for libraries existing—not be up for debate every year. This passed, so we’ll see that at the budget adjustment list debate at the tail end of budget season.

Fun diversion time: Remember when Amazon was considering opening an HQ in a Canadian city, and Halifax thought it had a shot? Well, it turns out that CAO Jaques Dubé and mayor Mike Savage helped put together a pitch to lure Amazon to Shannon Park. The memo notes “the bid will reference HRM’s ability to provide some property tax incentives under its current legislative authority.” The memo concludes “If the bid is successful, HRM may consider infrastructure investments and property incentives corresponding to projected increases in population and employment. Any required capital investment related to a successful bid will be submitted to Regional Council for approval.” Translated into English, that means the city was considering getting less tax revenue from Amazon and, in exchange, the city was also going spend your money on infrastructure improvements to help Amazon do business. Governments love to bend over backwards to give huge corporations tax breaks.

Back to the library. Why doesn’t Halifax Library have enough money to buy enough books? Amazon. Amazon’s monopoly of the digital book market is one of the main reasons the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain its digital collection. If Amazon had come to Halifax and had gotten the proffered tax breaks, then it would have been subsidized by our taxes while also extorting extra tax money out of us through the library budget.

And to think, the government used to more effectively regulate monopolies and protect taxpayers. Not anymore, though. Hell, in 1985 Brian Mulroney and his Tories even repealed the word “monopoly” from the Competition Act.

Isn’t our modern capitalist democracy neat?

Anyway, this budget is shaping up to be one of those pivotal moments in Halifax's history. It’s bubbling just under the surface, and there are no guarantees, but in 20 years, Halifax could be unrecognizable—in the best possible way.

This train of thought stems from deputy mayor Sam Austin’s passionate outburst at Wednesday’s budget meeting. Austin pointed out that the worst-case scenarios for climate change start in 2027. He pointed out that 2027 is right around the corner in the municipal planning world. This is true; on Tuesday, the day before Austin made this speech, council passed this year’s capital budget, which approves spending in 2027. Or, more bluntly: In municipal planning, 2027 is right now.

Austin is worried that the city is not doing enough, fast enough, saying this response to climate change will be a huge societal undertaking not seen since the Second World War. And at least outwardly, councillors agree with Austin’s sentiment, although some tempered their enthusiasm with practicality.

The budget committee also deferred the police budget, waiting to hear about the new, yet-to-be-presented public safety strategy for the city. Project leader Amy Siciliano has been speaking at various committees teasing out themes from the report but, broadly, the strategy is about less police and more programs and people that can help instead.

It should be noted, as councillor Tim Outhit often does, that because the police have been overtasked for so long, we don’t actually know how expensive it is to maintain a police department that just does policing. But making smart, tangible investments in public safety will have huge knock-on effects that won’t truly be recognized for decades to come.

For example, the police have been in the process of switching to electronic disclosure for years now. Even though a lot of evidence is gathered by and on cell phones, police have no legal way to transfer cell phone data electronically to the Crown’s office (AKA electronic disclosure). What they have to do is rip the data off the phone, transfer it to a CD or memory stick and deliver that to the Crown’s office. This takes a lot of time and money, and so too does the switch to electronic disclosure.

And later in this budget process, after getting the presentation from Siciliano, council will have the opportunity to take a bunch of responsibility off of the police’s plate, like mental health calls and victim services. But if the police budget remained unchanged, the newly freed up money could be spent on switching to electronic disclosure. And unloading that burden from the police means they can spend more time investigating crimes and catching criminals, which means the cases coming to the Crown are stronger, which means less work for the Crown.

On top of that, proactive public safety measures mean less people will interact with the legal system. Which means fewer people clogging up, and being chewed up, by our legal system. Better policing and better police practices leads to a more functional legal system overall.

And that’s just one small example from one aspect of policing. All of the best evidence seems to suggest that spending proactively on public safety saves so much money in downstream health care and justice costs.

These changes also coincide with the start of Nova Scotia’s aging population really starting to hit the health-care system. This means any policy put in place today to ease the burdens we know are coming tomorrow will be worth their weight in gold.

This city budget could be the start of a foundational shift in Nova Scotian living to one of equitable, environmental and economic sustainability.

Or, we may get a slightly smaller tax increase.

About The Author

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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